WASHINGTON (AP) - A Clinton administration study group reported Thursday that law enforcement needs new tools to police the Internet but called for further advice from the private sector before endorsing specific legislation.
Industry executives hailed the cautious approach, but civil libertarians called the report a threat to privacy in cyberspace.
''The Internet has provided our world with unparalleled opportunities,'' said Attorney General Janet Reno, who chaired the interagency Working Group on Unlawful Conduct on the Internet. ''At the same time, the Internet is providing criminals a vast, inexpensive and potentially anonymous way to commit crime.''
Reno told a news conference the Internet poses law enforcement problems like ''the inability to trace criminals who hide their identities online, difficulty in finding criminals ... in other jurisdictions,'' and a need for more trained personnel. ''The working group identified several areas where legal authorities and tools needed to combat cybercrime are insufficient.''
But she quickly added: ''I don't want to make specific proposals. I want to ... sit down with industry, with the privacy sector, and figure out how we deal with those issues.''
The report said some private Internet companies keep insufficient records to trace criminal activity. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley, appearing with Reno, said businesses must step up their efforts to make the Internet secure and cooperate more with law enforcement.
''We're not asking businesses to be online cops, but we want them to be online neighborhood watch groups,'' Daley said.
In the next two months, the Justice Department will hold an East Coast and a West Coast conference with industry and privacy groups to discuss prospective legislation.
The panel found existing laws that ban fraud or child pornography or regulate drugs, firearms, gambling, alcohol or intellectual property are adequate to cover Internet crimes.
But it noted that when tracing an Internet attack to learn a hacker's telephone number, prosecutors must get separate tap-and-trace warrants for each of what can be dozens of Internet service providers around the nation who relay the signal. Justice officials are considering proposing legislation that would allow just one warrant for all relays.
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, which has 26,400 corporate members, called the report sensible. The association ''agrees ... that gaps may exist in current law, particularly in the area of evidence collection'' but ''cautioned that new laws must move forward slowly and with the full participation of industry,'' Miller said.
Ron Teixeira, of the Internet Alliance, a group of major companies, like American Online, IBM, and Microsoft, praised the administration for recognizing that devising ''new laws and investigative authorities for the Internet is complex and will take time if we are to adequately preserve ... free speech, privacy and market independence.''
The report called Internet services that allow people to send anonymous email a ''double-edged sword.'' They allowed ethnic Albanians to provide firsthand accounts of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo without fear of retribution and can be useful to rape victims, AIDS sufferers or political dissidents. But they can allow people to anonymously send computer viruses, threats and child pornography.
The American Civil Liberties Union complained in a letter to Reno that ''the report treats the anonymity of Internet users as a 'thorny issue,' rather than a constitutional right.'' Proposals to strip Internet anonymity ''would chill free expression in cyberspace and strip away one of the key structural privacy protections enjoyed by Internet users.''
On the Net: Report text: http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/cybercrime